Change Management: Time to step it up

Small boy at bottom of stairs

Has change management become a passé profession? In most large corporate organisations it is commonplace, but elsewhere it is still a misunderstood vocation that is yet to find a home. Some believe it is an HR function. Many others think it is something that a project manager or other manager should do anyway. Others don’t think it is necessary at all. When you explain to someone that you are a change manager – do you almost always have to follow up with a jumbled explanation of what it is?

It is time for change professionals to lift their heads up, step up the value chain and become more strategic, inquisitive and challenging.

You are typically “managing a change” because it has been determined that there are a number of ‘people’ (stakeholder) issues expected – usually too many for the project manager (or other manager) to deal with. You are expected to have any number of PowerPoint packs, templates and spreadsheets such as a stakeholder matrix and a change and communications plan, and you spend a number of weeks with your head down filling in this detail. Then you will likely get out and start meeting with people about the change – usually commencing with management.

Start with WHY

The first thing a change manager should do is have an extensive discussion with the sponsor of the change (not the project manager) and pose some key questions:

  • Why are we doing the change? What are the underlying reasons?
  • How does the change directly link to an organisational strategy?
  • When the change is complete, what will success look like?

It’s ok if there are not satisfactory answers to these questions (have your “waffle” detector on high alert, by the way!). But it does mean you’ll need to work together with your sponsor to arrive at a sound launching pad. Unless you have compelling reasons for the change that can be linked to an agreed-upon strategy with some clear success factors, it will be very difficult for you to do your job or for the change to be successful.

Success factors are extremely important to clarify and express clearly at an organisational, network, and individual level (Senge, ‘The Dance of Change’, 1999). Most success factors are usually expressed as good for the organisation (e.g. reducing costs, increasing profit, growing efficiency). However, contrary to what many executives believe, these are not motivational to the bulk of your stakeholders. Your change success factors should appeal to all. Think autonomy, mastery and purpose (Pink, ‘Drive’, 2009) as ways of defining success factors that appeal on an individual level.

If it can’t be measured, then maybe do it anyway

There are many versions of the phrase ‘if it can’t be measured then it can’t be managed’ but I challenge this when it comes to the field of complex change and success factors. It is fraught with danger to be too hard-line on measurement for a number of reasons. Firstly, your change is only one of many that may be going on in the organisation. Whilst most ‘projects’ undertake an exercise to look for other inter-related projects, in any large organisation it is impossible to know everything that may impact the change you are trying to make. This makes it very difficult to promise and deliver, for example, a 2.5% uplift in efficiency or a 5% increase in profit.

Secondly, the term ‘ecosystem’ may now be cliché, but your organisation is part of a wider environment that you can’t necessarily control. Caution needs to be taken in defining success factors that have a reliance on external factors.

Thirdly, the key elements that require ‘change management’ are often very difficult to measure. How do you measure a change in mindset? A change in behaviour? A better culture? It’s not impossible to measure those things (surveys, feedback sessions, and information ‘radiators’, to name a few) but it is misleading to predict them with accuracy as they are subjective.

Success may come in waves

Another important factor to understanding change success is the time frame. Very few success factors can be achieved immediately after launching the change or ‘go live’, yet that is often the expectation due to the typical fixed-term ‘project’ method of implementing change.

Agree and define a schedule of success. Guide and challenge your senior stakeholders and ask some simple questions. What will success look like after 6 months? After 12 months? After 2 years? What are the quick wins that can be achieved almost immediately? Whilst Kotter and others highlight the importance of quick wins to gain momentum; challenge those stakeholders that stack all the success factors into early time frames, particularly if it is related to changing an important process, behaviour or culture. If it is an important change, it will take time to be a success.  For example, ‘Going live with NetSuite in the third quarter’ may be an immediate success factor to achieve but the more important success factor of ‘Reducing debtor balances by 5%’ may be a 6-12 month goal.

The ‘F’ Word and the ‘S’ Word – why can’t we just get along?

As the change manager, work with your stakeholders on strategies for a range of Failure/Success scenarios.

In the example above, the success factor was a 5% reduction in debtor balance over 6 months. However, if the change achieved a 3% reduction, do we regard that as a failure or do we then look at strategies to adjust what we are doing to keep up the momentum? What if the debtor balance grew over the period? Would that necessitate a reversal of the change and a return to the status quo?

The other side of defining success is defining what constitutes failure. Not achieving the success you desire does not mean that the change is a failure. Discuss with your key stakeholders some key factors that indicate that the change has failed and an appropriate course of action (nobody will want to do this as we don’t deal well with understanding failure!). From history we know the most complex changes have a high likelihood of failing. But, did they actually fail, or was it just a different avenue to success?

Change management has become too pedestrian. My advice is to spend less time with your head down doing documentation. Working with strategic success factors is one way where change managers can step up and provide greater value to the change program.

Let’s make our profession more about guidance, challenge and inquisitiveness and less about documents, spreadsheets and templates.


Craig Nenke is an experienced and highly regarded leader who has exceptional skills across organisational change management/business transition, project/program management, operational management and service management.

A strong, people-focused leader who can communicate well at executive and junior levels. Craig combines his in-depth business understanding with technology acumen and can forge deep, valuable relationships quickly. An ability to set the big picture and the WHY/purpose of change as well as focus on delivery and implementation, Craig brings a unique set of skills and capabilities to all clients and teams.


  1. I enjoyed your article Craig and your message of leaving templates behind is powerful. As change leaders we have a responsibility to lift our profession to the strategic level it commands – only then will businesses gain the benefits we expowse

  2. Thanks for the feedback Bev. Glad you liked the article. Keep your head up! 🙂


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